Consultant editor Darren Newman looks back at the employment law position in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and the legacy left by her Government on the workplace.
When I first began studying employment law, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and was halfway through her third term. Much of the law regulating trade unions and industrial action with which we are familiar today was already in place, but it was still hugely controversial and took up a good proportion of the course. Nowadays, collective employment law is of interest only to anoraks and activists - individual employment rights are where the real interest lies.
When I talk to HR professionals today, I am often struck by just how alien the time before Thatcher seems. In 1979, the world of work - and of employment law - was a very different place, and it is worth reflecting on just how much things have changed.
In 1979, many employers in both the public and private sector had entered into union membership agreements with a particular trade union. Known as the “closed shop”, these arrangements meant that continued membership of a particular trade union was a requirement of the job. Employees who refused to join, or who were expelled from membership, could be dismissed by their employer and such dismissals were deemed to be automatically fair. Employing someone who was not a member of the union - or not a member of the right union - was simply unthinkable.
When it came to industrial action, the law gave absolute protection to a union calling a strike in relation to any trade dispute. There was no requirement for a ballot of any sort and no need to give notice to the employer about the timing of the strike or who was being called out. Secondary action was perfectly lawful, so a union in one industry could take strike action to support a dispute in an entirely different industry. The same was true of picketing. Striking workers from one factory could turn up at the gates of a distribution depot and prevent goods from coming in or out.
In 1979, these features of the industrial relations system were entrenched and taken by many as a given. They had survived both Labour and Conservative attempts at reform. The last Conservative Government had gone all out with a major reform measure, the Industrial Relations Act 1971. This had simply not worked and had been repealed as soon as Labour came back into office in 1974.
The Government of